To Publish Official Secrets -- or Not
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and top Pentagon brass are claiming that the lives of Afghan civilians and U.S. soldiers have been put at risk by the leak of some 92,000 classified documents about the Afghan War, waving the bloody shirt (even if they don’t yet have one).
Referring to the leaker and WikiLeaks, the Web site which distributed the documents, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday that “the truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family.”
Gates cited the need to examine the documents to assess potential dangers to soldiers and civilians. “We have a moral obligation, not only to our troops but to those who have worked with us,” Gates said, adding that he had called the FBI into an expanding criminal investigation of the leak.
However, the intensifying rhetoric against WikiLeaks and the chief leaking suspect, Pfc. Bradley Manning, obscures two crucial points:
First, the U.S. military itself has put countless Afghanis (and Iraqis) in harm’s way by pressing (or bribing) them to cooperate with the occupying forces. Indeed, the military has publicized these collaborations by having the news media film meetings between American officers and local leaders, as a sign of supposed U.S. progress in winning their hearts and minds.
Especially in Iraq, many Sunnis who agreed to take U.S. money and join the so-called Awakening have been killed in retaliatory attacks. Similar killings have occurred in Afghanistan, in areas like Marja where U.S. troops claimed to have established security only to find the Taliban returning at night to take revenge on Afghan officials and residents working with the Americans.
More broadly, it could be argued that President George W. Bush’s invasions – and botched occupations – of Afghanistan and Iraq have led to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, making any suggestion that Manning and WikiLeaks may have some additional blood on their hands both hypothetical and hypocritical.
Secondly, the main reason for leaks is that the U.S. government has engaged in vastly over-classifying its “secrets,” thus reducing the ability of the American people to debate life-or-death issues of war and peace – and undermining the concept of an informed electorate in a democracy.
In my career as an investigative reporter covering national security issues, I have often encountered both the problem of over-classification on relatively innocuous information and the desire of government officials to hide truths that the people had a right to know.
Indeed, Consortiumnews.com, which I founded in 1995, was one of the first – if not the first – investigative Web site to disclose classified U.S. government documents on the Internet. We did so because I had come into possession of secret documents that shed light on an important chapter of American history, the so-called October Surprise case of 1980.
The documents helped explain how Republicans gained power in that pivotal election year allegedly through a treacherous dirty trick, sabotaging President Jimmy Carter’s negotiations with Iran to free 52 American hostages before the 1980 election. However, by the time I found the documents in the mid-1990s, there was no interest among more traditional U.S. news outlets, including The New Yorker magazine, to use these documents.
Apparently the disinterest stemmed from the widely held view that the October Surprise case was a discredited “conspiracy theory.” But the secret documents told a different story.
So, on the advice of my oldest son, Sam, we started the Consortiumnews.com Web site and revealed the documents in an eight-part series that I dubbed “The October Surprise X-Files.”
The documents included a confidential cable from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow translating a January 1993 report from the Russian parliament about what Soviet-era intelligence files revealed about the October Surprise case.
The Russian Report corroborated longstanding allegations that Republicans did strike a deal with the Iranians behind Carter’s back, a determination that contradicted the conclusion of a congressional task force which had claimed to find “no credible evidence” of Republican guilt.
The Russian Report was addressed to the task force chairman, Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Indiana, and arrived on Jan. 11, 1993, just two days before the task force issued its debunking report. The task force’s chief counsel, Lawrence Barcella, apparently acting on his own, decided to simply hide the contradictory Russian Report.
Barcella later told me that he envisioned the Russian Report and the other documents disappearing into a government warehouse like the final scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Subsequently, I was told by Hamilton that he had no recollection of ever seeing the Russian Report, and Barcella said in an e-mail to me that he didn’t “recall whether I showed [Hamilton] the Russian report or not.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “October Surprise Evidence Hidden.”]
(Ironically, one of the Republicans implicated in the Russian Report was Robert Gates, who in 1980 was an ambitious young CIA officer possibly looking to ride a Reagan election victory like an express elevator to the top of the CIA.)
Another document from those files was a “top secret/sensitive” talking point memo that Secretary of State Alexander Haig had written for a briefing of President Reagan in spring 1981, about confidential conversations that Haig had had with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Saudi Prince Fahd.
"Both Sadat and Fahd [explained that] Iran is receiving military spares for U.S. equipment from Israel," Haig reported, a fact that might have been less surprising to Reagan, whose intermediaries allegedly had collaborated with Israeli officials in 1980 to smuggle weapons to Iran behind Carter's back.
But Haig followed that comment with another stunning assertion: "It was also interesting to confirm that President Carter gave the Iraqis a green light to launch the war against Iran through Fahd." If true – and Carter has denied doing so – that would mean that Carter, frustrated by Iran’s refusal to release the U.S. hostages, might have encouraged a bloody war that changed history.
When I contacted Haig about his memo, he refused to discuss the talking points by saying they remained classified. The “top secret” justification apparently derived from the fact that two foreign leaders (Sadat and Fahd) had been providing their candid insights into Middle East events.
Unlike the current WikiLeaks case, I did not rely on a government “leaker” to turn over classified material. I discovered a number of secret documents among the unpublished files of the Hamilton-Barcella task force because the files had not been fully purged of classified material.
In late 1994, the House Foreign Affairs Committee had granted me access to boxes of the task force’s supposedly unclassified material with the restriction that I could copy only a dozen pages per visit. After finding the classified material, I volunteered to do the copying myself and then took the secret material with me. I made several visits, extracting more papers each time.
Though I wrote about the documents and posted them on the Internet, I was never contacted by any government agency to complain. Perhaps, key people didn’t notice or the thinking was that it made more sense to ignore the material. [To see the actual October Surprise documents, click here.]
The North Secrets
Earlier in my career – while working at the Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s – government officials got angrier when I reported on information they would have preferred be kept secret.
For instance, there was gnashing of teeth inside the White House in June 1985 after I wrote the first story mentioning how national security aide Oliver North was involved in fundraising and other support activities for the Nicaraguan contra rebels.
Later, the New York Times published its own story on this contra support but bowed to White House pressure to leave out North’s name, simply referring to him as an unnamed official. North and the White House were insisting that North’s role was so sensitive that mentioning his name put his life at risk.
Then, when the Washington Post weighed in, I got a call from Leonard Downie Jr., who was then the Post’s managing editor. He also was under pressure to protect North’s identity, but had noticed that the AP had already published North’s name. I explained that we had seen no reason not to, since North was a publicly known official on the National Security Council. The Post followed our lead and named North.
Another touchy moment came after I went to work at Newsweek in 1987. The following year, the Reagan administration was trying to resume U.S. backing for contra raids on Nicaragua, in part by claiming that the Sandinista government was persecuting the Catholic Church without reason.
However, in my reporting on contra funding, I learned that the CIA had been using Nicaragua’s Catholic Church and Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo to funnel money to groups inside Nicaragua seeking to undermine the Sandinista government politically while the contras operated militarily.
Ultimately I had more than a dozen sources inside the contra movement or close to U.S. intelligence confirming these operations, which I was told carried an annual budget of about $10 million. I also discovered that the CIA’s support for Obando and his Catholic hierarchy went through a maze of cut-outs in Europe, apparently to give Obando deniability.
But one well-placed Nicaraguan exile said he had spoken with Obando about the money and the cardinal had expressed fear that his past receipt of CIA funding would come out.
The CIA funding for Nicaragua’s Catholic Church was originally unearthed in 1985 by the congressional intelligence oversight committees, which insisted that the money be cut off to avoid compromising Obando. But Oliver North’s operation simply picked up where the CIA had left off.
In fall 1985, North earmarked $100,000 of his privately raised money to go to Obando for his anti-Sandinista activities.
But what was the right thing for an American journalist to do with this information?
Here was a case in which the U.S. government was misleading the American public by pretending that the Sandinistas were cracking down on the Catholic Church and the internal opposition without any justification. Plus, this U.S. propaganda was being used to make the case in Congress for an expanded war in which thousands of Nicaraguans were dying.
However, if Newsweek ran the story, it would put CIA assets, including the cardinal, in a dicey situation, possibly even life-threatening.
A Cardinal on the Run
When I presented the information to my bureau chief, Evan Thomas, I made no recommendation on whether we should publish or not. I just laid out the facts as I had ascertained them. To my surprise, Thomas was eager to go forward.
Newsweek contacted its Central America correspondent Joseph Contreras, who outlined our questions to Obando’s aides and prepared a list of questions to present to the cardinal personally. When Contreras went to Obando’s home in a posh suburb of Managua, the cardinal literally evaded the issue.
As Contreras later recounted in a cable back to the United States, he was approaching the front gate when it suddenly swung open and the cardinal, sitting in the front seat of his burgundy Toyota Land Cruiser, blew past.
As Contreras made eye contact and waved the letter, Obando’s driver gunned the engine. Contreras jumped into his car and hastily followed. Contreras guessed correctly that Obando had turned left at one intersection and headed north toward Managua.
Contreras caught up to the cardinal’s vehicle at the first stop-light. The driver apparently spotted the reporter and, when the light changed, sped away, veering from lane to lane. The Land Cruiser again disappeared from view, but at the next intersection, Contreras turned right and spotted the car pulled over, with its occupants presumably hoping that Contreras had turned left.
Quickly, the cardinal’s vehicle pulled onto the road and now sped back toward Obando’s house. Contreras gave up the chase, fearing that any further pursuit might appear to be harassment.
Several days later, having regained his composure, the cardinal finally met with Contreras and denied receiving any CIA money. But Contreras told me that Obando’s denial was unconvincing.
Newsweek drafted a version of the story, making it appear as if we weren’t sure of the facts about Obando and the money. When I saw a readback of the article, I went into Thomas’s office and said that if Newsweek didn’t trust my reporting, we shouldn’t run the story at all. He said that wasn’t the case; it was just that the senior editors felt more comfortable with a vaguely worded story.
We ended up in hot water with the Reagan administration and right-wing media attack groups anyway. Accuracy in Media lambasted me, in particular, for going with such a sensitive story without being sure of the facts (which, of course, I was).
Thomas was summoned to the State Department where Abrams heaped more criticism on me though not denying the facts of our story. (After the disclosure, the Sandinistas did nothing to Obando, who gradually evolved more into a figure of reconciliation than confrontation.)
In general, the lessons that I have learned from three decades of dealing with these kinds of stories is that you should be careful to minimize risks to specific individuals whenever possible. However, the real-life dangers cut both ways.
There have been plenty of cases in which tolerance of government secrecy has gotten people killed, including U.S. soldiers. Former senior Pentagon official Daniel Ellsberg berates himself to this day for not leaking the Pentagon Papers history of the Vietnam War earlier, when the revelations of government lying might have saved the lives of countless Americans and Vietnamese.
Journalists also bear a profound responsibility to the American people, who represent the sovereign power of a democratic Republic. The United States is not a monarchy or a dictatorship where government secrets are the possession of a king or the dictator.
Information is not only the lifeblood of the democracy but it belongs to the democracy. That has been a fundamental principle of American self-governance for more than two centuries despite delusions of grandeur among some recent presidents, like Richard Nixon and George W. Bush who believed they owned their White House secrets and could even bequeath them to their descendants.
In 2009, on his second day in office, President Barack Obama struck down some of his predecessor’s more grandiose notions about owning American history. However, Obama also has tried to demonstrate his toughness on national security by cracking down on unauthorized leaks.
Without doubt, there are legitimate secrets that the public doesn’t need to know and that would cause grave dangers if released (such as how to construct nuclear weapons). But what I have seen time and again is that the government over-classifies information, either from an exaggerated fear of hypothetical risks or from political expediency.
My rule of thumb is that journalists who come into possession of classified material must lean toward sharing the information with the people while exercising common-sense restraint to avoid unnecessary harm. Granted, that is not a perfect solution. It is not without risks, but nothing is.
As for the Afghan War and the WiliLeaks documents, there remains a powerful case that the release has already served an important public good by focusing renewed attention on the many failures and frustrations that have surrounded the nine-year-old American-led occupation.
The New York Times, which was given an embargoed set of the 92,000 documents, devoted five to six pages of Monday’s edition to an in-depth examination of the Afghan War. Scrambling to catch up, the Washington Post also led its Monday editions with the disclosures.
If the release of these documents serves to ignite and inform a public debate about the Afghan War – and how to end it – then Secretary Gates and the Pentagon might not be happy with that, but the lives of many Afghanis and American soldiers may be spared.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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